The issuance of New Jersey driver licenses without regard to immigration status is indefinitely delayed and the state Motor Vehicles Commission is blaming the coronavirus pandemic.
“Status-neutral licensing is important for many New Jerseyans, but the demands on MVC due to COVID-19 have made it impossible for us to complete the training and software changes required to implement it,” said Sue Fulton, the MVC chief administrator.
This is the latest failure in an agency beset by setbacks and massive delays after offices were closed from March to June.
No new implementation date has been announced, but Gov. Phil Murphy said in his daily press briefing that he hoped the delay would be “no later that spring.”
“We cannot conduct the necessary hands-on document training without violating COVID-19 restrictions; in addition, the stand-downs for training would impact our critical operations,” Fulton stated. “We are hopeful that we will get past the worst of the pandemic in the next few months so we can get this done for those who sorely need it.”
The MVC declined to say whether the delay was related to back office issues or an inability to handle in-person applications.
“We will not be commenting beyond what is in the press release at this time,” said Jim Hooker, a spokesman for the MVC.
Murphy validated Fulton’s reason for the delay.
“Covid has clobbered a lot of plans,” he said.
Make the Road New Jersey, a grassroots organization that played a key role in passing the 2019 legislation, said they were “deeply disappointed that after more than a year since the law was passed, MVC chose to delay implementation of the drivers license expansion.”
“Nearly a half million immigrants and their families fought for years to win access to a license. During this upcoming winter, due to the pandemic, the ability to drive will be a question of life or death for many families that need to socially distance,” the group said in a statement on Monday. “We urge Governor Murphy and Chief Fulton to work swiftly to finalize regulations that allow every qualified New Jerseyan to access a license as soon as possible. The health of our state and of hundreds of thousands of families depend on it.”
The agency’s inability to meet the deadline didn’t come as a surprise to everyone.
“Well I guess that makes sense. Legal residents have the same problems and delays with NJMVC,” said Warren County Freeholder James Kern.
Legislation signed by Murphy in December 2019 allows undocumented immigrants to obtain a driver license called for implementation in January 2021.
“Expanding access to driver’s licenses is critical for the safety of New Jerseyans and a step toward building a stronger and fairer New Jersey for all,” Murphy said last year. “Allowing residents the opportunity to obtain driver’s licenses regardless of their immigration status will decrease the number of uninsured drivers and increase safety on our roads. I thank my partners in the Legislature for sending this important bill to my desk.”
New Jersey became the 13th state to approve access to licenses for undocumented New Jersey residents.
The bill passed the Senate 21-17, with Democrats Dawn Addiego (D-Evesham and James Beach (D-Washington) joining the Republicans in opposition. The Assembly passed the plan 42-30, with the GOP minority joined by Democrats John Armato (D-Buena Vista), Eric Houghtaling (D-Neptune), Vince Mazzeo (D-Northfield), Paul Moriarty (D-Washington), and Gabriella Mosquera (D-Gloucester Township).
This story was updated at 1:47 PM with comment from Murphy, at 1:56 PM with comment from Kern, and at 2:25 PM with comment from Hooker.